The Fight for the Commission
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Postcards showing farm life
At first, Texas farmers welcomed the railroads with open arms. But as the 1870s began, they became outraged at what they regarded as unfair rates and discriminatory practices. And there seemed to be little that the average farmer could do about it. Railroads were no longer local concerns. Small railroads were being consumed by big corporations with headquarters in faraway places like New York and Chicago. Rates were set not by competition but by agreements between railroads. If the farmer wanted to ship his crops, he had no choice but to pay the rates.
The farmers had little understanding of the market forces that drove an increasingly complex and interconnected economy. But they did understand that if they were to try to fight powerful corporate entities, they couldn’t do it alone.
Map of the lines and land of the Texas & Pacific Railway, 1873
The first farmers’ political organization was the Patrons of Husbandry, better known as the Grange. The Grange was founded in Washington, D.C. in 1867 as a fraternal organization. As economic times grew harder, however, the Grange became politicized. Its growth exploded after the Panic of 1873 set off a severe economic depression. The Texas Grange was organized in Salado in 1873 specifically to fight for railroad regulation.
By 1875 the Texas Grange had 40,000 members. Nationwide, the Grange had over 850,000 members. Grange influence was strongest in Illinois, Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin. It was in these states that the first important railroad regulations were enacted and the first important court cases were heard. But the Texas Grange also had its day in the sun.
Debate on railroad regulation, 1875 Constitutional Convention
Half of the delegates elected to the Texas Constitutional Convention of 1875 were Grangers. The constitution that came out of the convention (which, much amended, is still in effect in Texas today) reflected their world view. They opposed big government, banks, and taxation, even to pay for public education. To oppose the power of the railroads, they forbid companies from buying or controlling competing lines, and denied cities and counties the ability to issue bonds to pay for railroad construction. Most importantly, they gave the legislature the power to fix rates and fares.
Article X, Section 2 of the Texas Constitution of 1876 declared:
Railroads heretofore constructed or which may hereafter be constructed in this State are hereby declared public highways and railroads common carriers. The Legislature shall pass laws to regulate railroad freight and passenger tariffs on the different railroads in the State and enforce the same by adequate penalties.
Learn more about the Texas Constitution on our Texas Treasures site.
Governor Richard Coke, following a precedent established by Massachusetts, proposed in 1876 that the state create a commission to investigate and report on railroad abuses. His proposal was opposed by financial backers of the railroads and also by many ordinary Texans. Texas still lagged badly behind much of the country in commercial development, and many Texans were wary of any legislation that might discourage the railroads from continuing to build. Governor Coke’s proposal went nowhere.
In spite of the constitutional provisions, very little changed in practice for Texas railroads and the farmers who depended on them. Railroad construction continued at a furious pace – in 1877, Texas led the nation in construction of new rails. But a detailed regulatory code to curb abuses was never written, and the laws on the books were only erratically enforced. Plagued by infighting and disappointment over the lack of results, the Grange movement fell apart as a political force. By 1879, only 4000 Texans were members of the Grange.
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